A Rice University faculty member has created a system for the free exchange of curriculum material and other educational research. Supporters of the project say the resource creates a place online where professors and other educators can turn for reliable, peer-reviewed educational research on topics ranging from engineering to music to technology literacy.

The Rice project, called Connexions–essentially a web-based document creation and management repository for educational research materials–was created by a member of the university’s engineering department.

Members of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) say they plan to use the resource to house peer-reviewed materials on all aspects of educational leadership and are encouraging school administrators and other education professionals to consider submitting reports to be posted and archived on the site.

Connexions is “an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the web,” the project web site explains.

The site’s open license allows for free use and reuse of all content.

Richard Baraniuk, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University, started the Connexions project in 1999. His intent was to corral the department’s entire engineering curricula, storing it in one centralized location where students could access it free of charge.

Today the site is free to both users and authors, and users do not have to be members of the Connexions site or have an account to search the database. Though the project is intended as a resource for students and instructors, anyone with an interest in learning more about a particular subject area can search the database and use the information in it, said Ted Creighton, executive director of NCPEA.

Connexions’ Content Commons boasts a wide array of educational materials for a variety of users from children, to college students, to professionals. Materials are organized into small “modules,” or “knowledge chunks,” that are connected to larger “courses,” or collections of modules.

“Our profession–education leadership–has been struggling for a couple decades to assemble everything we know about principal and superintendent prep programs in one place, where folks could look at the entire knowledge base,” said Creighton. That task has been made even more difficult given the fact that materials often are scattered across different mediums–in textbooks, journals, and other areas, he said.

“From the perspective of practitioners, there’s little in the knowledge base written by principals and superintendents,” explained Creighton. “We can pretty much count the contributors, perhaps less than 100 people. That doesn’t make sense to us–principals have things to say, everybody has expertise to contribute to the pile of knowledge.”

With Connexions, he said, principals and other executive-level administrators now have a place where they can go to submit research and to hear what their colleagues are saying about a particular area of instruction.

“This Connexions medium began to make sense to us, [and we thought] if we can make it attractive for people to contribute, we can get [content] contributions from everyone.” noted Creighton.

The idea is to assemble a collection of articles that has been peer-reviewed and, therefore, validated.

The hope is that having an NCPEA endorsement on an article will affirm for readers that the article has been validated by someone–a professional–in the field. Connexions staff do not review submitted articles. Rather they leave that responsibility to the authors and instructors who use its content.

Each NCPEA member-reviewed article contains a logo and a note at the beginning telling readers that it has been peer-reviewed.

The peer review process is not mandatory, but is a way to both recognize the authors and let readers know that the information in the article is valid and true, said Creighton. If authors go through NCPEA, the organization acts as a “filter.”

“We look at all of this information, and we’ll determine if it’s really about leadership, if it’s scholarly, and if it’s helpful,” he said. “We’ll put our stamp on it.”

The process begins when an author sends an eMail submission to Creighton, or other NCPEA staff members, asking them to review the article for Connexions. The reviewer then looks at the article and sends it out to two or three other reviewers who are assigned to look over articles on a particular topic. Then, after the reviewers have read the article, they send it back to Creighton, who forwards it onto the author with any comments and suggested revisions. The author addresses the changes, sends the article back to Creighton, and he uploads it to Connexions for publication.

“One of my tasks is to get the word out that we’re seeking submissions,” said Creighton, who currently is working with NCPEA state affiliates to generate interest in the project.

He also has been working with authors to help them optimize the exposure and impact of their work.

Creighton said a critical component of the submission process is developing keywords to accompany each article.

“I’m working with one author right now and I told him the more keywords he can come up with, the better–even if he gives me 100,” Creighton said. “Then, when you go in and you’re the searcher and you don’t [type in] leadership’ but you [type in] change process,’ [the article] will come up.”

When users search for a topic–“music,” for example–each archived article with the word “music” designated as one of its keywords will appear. Users then can click on a PDF version of the article, which they can print out to be distributed to classes or colleagues, he said.

All Connexions authors maintain individual copyrights to their works. One benefit to the online system: it enables authors to change and edit their documents as they deem necessary. “With Connexions, the author can check their piece out, change it, update it, and immediately publish it back into the database,” explained Creighton.

For instance, an original version of an article might appear in the database as version 2.0, while an updated version would appear as version 2.1, and so on. Searches provide users with the most recent versions of the articles first, but also provide links to older and original documents.

As an added benefit to educators, the organization also is looking in to translating articles into different languages, particularly Spanish and Chinese. Ideally, Creighton said, users would be able to select which language they’d like to view an article in by clicking a button designated to a particular translation.

“We haven’t quite figured that out yet because translation is difficult, and also costly, but I’m thinking that one day real soon it’s going to be very easy,” he said. “If we can pull this off, there are two great benefits–we can first of all translate into languages, but we can then seek contributions from people in other countries.”

Creighton and his colleagues also have the ability to review articles that have already been published to the site. In such a situation, Creighton said, someone from NCPEA would contact the author and guide her or him through the necessary steps to achieve NCPEA approval.

Despite the innovation and convenience that comes with an online submission process, he says, not all educators are fans of the idea.

“There’s a bit of resistance coming from what I consider to be the old guard–the professors who are not really tech-savvy, who still think they have to have a hard copy of everything, and who think it has to be peer-reviewed by 16 people,” said Creighton, who added, “Our response is, What problem do you have with us giving knowledge away?'”

Creighton said having a peer-review system should help professors, and other educators, share their knowledge while at the same time getting credit for their work.

“We fully know that professors are not going to write if it doesn’t give them credit for their tenure process,” he said. “We hope it will let people see that a professor wrote an article, it was reviewed, that the author made revisions based on comments, and then re-published it. Because otherwise, professors won’t write if they don’t get credit for it.”

And the submitted articles do not have to be articles at all. “The pieces can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a book,” explained Creighton.

When looking for a means to justify the energy he’s put into the product, Creighton recalls a time when, as a superintendent, he didn’t entirely understand certain rules pertaining to special education.

“I wish I would have had a page, half a page, of the rules and regulations on what a district is responsible for,” he said. Submissions could even be more along the lines of best practices. “We care about how we can help that principal, or that superintendent, or that school.”

Links:

National Council of Professors of Educational Administration
http://www.ncpea.net

Connexions
http://www.cnx.org